We all have had our various experiences with animals. Whether we’re happy to see them, or get angry at them for destroying something.
In many ways, our relationship with our pets can mirror our relationships with people too.
If a dog, dare I say – eats your homework, you’ll probably get mad at him. Your cat might scratch up your leather couch, or knock things off the counter in a nonchalant manner.
The easiest reaction we can have is one of anger towards our pets. Now this is no post about anger management, rather it’s why that anger shouldn’t exist in the first place.
Earlier this year I received this cute little fluffy thing I ended up calling “Ninja”. It just so happens that he simultaneously became my company’s mascot.
As the months progressed, I found the kitty becoming increasingly more annoying, whether he’d jimmy my blinds or try to knock over one of my many (fake) bamboo trees around the house. Each time he frustrated me I responded in anger – trying to shoo him out so I could get back to work.
One day I realized that his actions didn’t necessarily mean he had a bad personality. Rather, him attacking my things was the only way that he knew how to get my attention.
Suddenly, my perception of everything he did completely flipped. The next time he did something that annoyed me, I asked myself if I was ignoring his needs. Could there be something that I was doing to instigate the behavior?
So I asked why he might be trying to tip over trees. In my daily Journal I read all the entries I had about cat behavior. I was able to make the connection that he typically does it at night on days I haven’t given him any playtime or real attention.
Furthermore, after reading a great book on using positive reinforcement with animals called Don’t Shoot the Dog, I knew that playing with him after this behavior would only reinforce the behavior.
This led me to the hypothesis that, if I played with him earlier in the day, his obnoxious behavior might stop.
Sure enough, after a week of playing with him, he started to misbehave less and less.
What does this mean for relationships with people?
Instead of judging people based on your perception of them or the situation, you should take a moment to pause and consider the situation as a whole.
All too often we honk our horn at the car in front of us for going too slow, or not making the turn when there was clearly an opening! That is, until we see it’s an old person; or realize that the lady behind the airport check-in counter has had to deal with a handful of screaming passengers over an issue she has no control over.
There is a human fallacy known as the Fundamental Attribution Error.
The fundamental attribution error states that we tend to apply judgement towards others based on a specific situation, and regard that as true to their character. But most of the time, these negative views of others are unwarranted. If someone is having a bad day when we first meet them, or their personality is substantially different from our own, we can assume that they are trying to be jerks when this isn’t the case.
It’s all too easy to assume we have an aggressive dog, an evil cat, or a malevolent co-worker. However, if we widen our view of the situation, test our assumptions, take a step back and become ready to accept that our first conclusion might be wrong, we’re one step closer to being a better human being to others.
In fact, there’s a great book on biases and the choices we make in our lives called Decisive by Dan and Chip Heath. In it they created a model called WRAP to avoid making decisions as a result of human bias, emotion and ego.
Farnam Street covers his in greater detail, but here’s the general strategy:
- You encounter a choice. But narrow framing makes you miss options. So … Widen Your Options. How can you expand your set of choices? …
- You analyze your options. But the confirmation bias leads you to gather self-serving information. So … Reality-Test Your Assumptions. How can you get outside your head and collect information you can trust? …
- You make a choice. But short-term emotion will often tempt you to make the wrong one. So … Attain Distance Before Deciding. How can you overcome short-term emotion and conflicted feelings to make better choices? …
- Then you live with it. But you’ll often be overconfident about how the future will unfold. So … Prepare to Be Wrong. How can we plan for an uncertain future so that we give our decisions the best chance to succeed?
In many ways, this is a process that can be used to help practice the ancient philosophy known as Stoicism, or as Ryan Holiday likes to refer to as an “Operation System for our minds”.
What is Stoicism?
The focus of Stoicism is asking how can we lead a fulfilling, happy life – ultimately becoming better human beings.
Having stoic principles to live by can also aid us in life’s trials. Whether we’re trying to obtain inner peace, develop more self-control, or move past obstacles instead of running away from them.
Having a pet can serve as a living symbol of our desire to be more stoic in our everyday lives. Not only can their energy and presentness inspire us, but their constant logging for our attention can help us realize when we are failing to live our own lives “in the moment”.
It’s in those moments where we regret what we did afterward that we realize our reaction far exceeded the actual damage or inconvenience that was caused. When your pet, co-worker or friend ever starts to get on your nerves on a regular basis, it often has something to do with your attitude or actions, not theirs.… Becoming aware of these moments can give us a reality check – and inspire us to think of solutions that might change the situation for the better.
In short, here’s what stoicism is all about:
- It’s being able to ask ourselves if this event, or feeling will matter to us in 10 minutes, months or years from now.?
- It’s being able to discard an illogical viewpoint that we can recognize is fueled by emotion.
- It’s being able to see the world for what it really is, and in part – accepting the influence it has on our lives.
It’s no easy task to be able to pull ourselves out of an emotional or egoistic state and make an unbiased decision. However the more we make an effort to practice it, the better we’ll become.
Having to take care of another being that never intentionally means to cause us distress, can become your living reminder on how to live a good life.
If you’re interested in learning more about Stoicism, NJLifeHacks as a pretty good article covering it here.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
This post has not been revised since publication.